For the Michigan football team’s rushing attack, Saturday’s performance against Air Force was something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When the offensive line blocked for senior quarterback Denard Robinson, good things happened — sometimes even really good things, like Robinson’s two touchdown runs of 79 yards and 58 yards.
But when redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint got the ball, he often found himself hounded by defenders before he could even get to the hole — if there was even one to be found.
It was a hardly a triumphant return to game action for Toussaint, who was suspended for the season opener against Alabama as punishment for driving while visibly impaired over the summer. He gained just seven yards on eight attempts, nowhere near the 5.6 yards per carry he averaged last season.
Toussaint’s performance was only slightly worse than the running backs’ performance in that first game against the Crimson Tide, when fifth-year senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls combined for 42 yards on 20 attempts.
Who’s to blame for this inability to get the ground game — at least, the “non-Denard running game,” as one reporter dubbed it on Saturday — going? If you ask the Wolverine offensive line, the responsibility falls squarely on its shoulders.
“That’s something that’s definitely on the offensive line, as far as getting Fitz and the other guys more rushing yards,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer. “As an offensive lineman, you kind of have the luxury with Denard that he makes plays. … With the running backs, that’s completely on the offensive line.
“I think we improved a little bit this week from the first game, but we’ve got to get a lot better and start playing Michigan football like Michigan offensive linemen should.”
The subpar performance against Alabama was probably expected, even if Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his players won’t ever admit it. Few teams are able to run on the Crimson Tide with success — in fact, the Wolverines didn’t even try to use Robinson, their best rushing threat, since they didn’t think he would be able to do much with the way Alabama was defending him.
But Michigan’s inability to run against the Falcons was more troubling. They don’t have nearly the talent that Alabama does, and they are undersized to boot.
“Air Force has a really unique defense,” Mealer said. “Lot of confusion, I guess you could say. I thought we handled that well. That aspect of it, the mental part of it I guess, getting guys where they need to be was good.
“But I just think we need to be more downhill as an offensive line, making obvious holes for Fitz and playing Michigan offensive line football.”
Though the line lost Rimington Award-winning center Dave Molk and right tackle Mark Huyge from last year’s team, it was expected that the unit wouldn’t miss much of a beat. Redshirt junior Michael Schofield, who played well at guard last season, slid over to tackle, and the Wolverines had two veterans, fifth-year senior left guard Ricky Barnum and Mealer, replacing the departed players.
But early returns are a bit troubling, though Mealer has done a solid job after switching spots with Barnum and becoming the full-time center.
Redshirt junior right tackle Taylor Lewan, a preseason All-America candidate and a potential early entrant to the NFL draft next spring, called the line’s performance “awful” immediately after the game on Saturday. After watching the game film, he was less critical on Monday, pointing to Robinson’s rushing totals.
But he echoed Mealer’s sentiments about needing to get better.
“My goal for the running back is 150-plus yards every week,” Lewan said. “That’s my goal, personally, and the offensive line’s. Our stats are Denard’s rushing yards and our rushing yards. Those are our stats, and we have to take pride in that.”
The aspect of the line’s performance that may be a bit overlooked is in the passing game, and Lewan said he’s pleased with the way the line has pass blocked. Michigan gave up one sack against Alabama and none against Air Force, with Robinson’s mobility helping to ease pressure concerns.
But the run blocking for the backs will be a major focus this week against Massachusetts, and it will likely need to be much improved in order to beat Notre Dame the week after.
“I don’t know if I’m real concerned at this time,” Hoke said. “I think one, I give (Air Force) a lot of credit for what their plan was. I think as a group they’re coming together. I think we’ve got to be more consistent and better at the point of attack on some things, but I’m not concerned yet.”
INJURY NOTES: Hoke said that sophomore defensive end Brennan Beyer, who exited Saturday’s game with a knee strain, is likely out this week. He also called redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Richard Ash’s injury a “boo-boo.” On Saturday, Hoke said he expected Ash back this week.
This story was updated on Sept. 11 at 10:00 a.m.